Greetings! As the NBA season wraps up, it’s time to unveil my “official” (aka fake) NBA awards ballot. Without further ado, let’s get to the awards.
Most Improved Player
1) Greivis Vasquez, New Orleans Hornets
2) Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks
3) Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
- I have a confession to make about Greivis Vasquez. Coming into this season (and really, into his NBA career), I had no illusion that he could ever be a quality NBA player and, on top of that, I strongly disliked his game. Then, before our eyes, he transformed himself into not only a quality NBA player, but a starting-level point guard. Vasquez finished the season by averaging a staggering 9.0 assists per game (3rd in the entire league), and while his minutes increased a lot, his performance wasn’t purely a result of that usage increase. His 10.4 assists per 40 minutes is a career high (8.4 per 40 last season), and Vasquez managed to keep his shooting percentages stable despite a vast increase in usage, while actually lowering his turnover rate from 13.7% in 2011-2012 to just 12.2% this season. Frankly, I’m as shocked as you are, but Vasquez has officially overcome his physical limitations vastly improved to the point where he lands in the top spot here.
- Behind him, Larry Sanders (or LARRY SANDERS! for Grantland’s Zach Lowe) improved by leaps and bounds in year three. His PER jumped from 13.34 to 18.74, and with it came vast improvements in scoring, rebounding, and true shooting percentages while establishing himself as an elite defender as a big man.
- Tristan Thompson is a distant 3rd for me, but he certainly had a quality year and is noticeably better in just about every aspect. Thompson is another example of a guy who not only used his increase to minutes to his advantage, but improved in every ratio category, averaging 15.0 points and 12.1 rebounds per 40 minutes while doubling his assist rate and lowering his turnover rate. He’s officially a quality NBA big man, and that was in doubt 12 months ago.
1) Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Hornets
2) JR Smith, New York Knicks
3) Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors
- For all of the love surrounding the other contenders (we’ll get there), I firmly believe that Ryan Anderson has the best resume. Nowhere in the rules does it require a 6th man of the year candidate to play on a good team, and if you remove that from the equation, Anderson’s play speaks for itself. Anderson posted the best PER of any legitimate 6th man contender (18.24), shot the ball at a tremendous 55 TS%, and finished the season with 212 three-point field goals, which was good for 2nd in the entire NBA behind the incredible Stephen Curry. Because Anderson took a slight step back in efficiency from his incredible year last year in Orlando, people have forgotten about him, but the numbers don’t lie here, and he’s been the best bench player in the league this season.
- JR Smith finishes in 2nd place and I am as surprised as you are. Smith just turned in by far the best season of his career, posting career-bests in scoring (18.1 ppg), rebounding (5.3), turnover rate (7.7%), and free-throw attempts (311). It was a tale of two seasons for Smith, as I had taken him completely off of my ballot by mid-season, but he responded with strong play down the stretch, abandoning his careless three-point shooting in favor of ferocious attacks to the rim, and when he was playing defense on the other end (much better this seas0n), he was a two-way force for the first time in his career. If he had played that way over 82 games instead of 30-40, he would’ve been the choice.
- Jarrett Jack leads a cavalcade of worthy candidates for 3rd place, but gets the nod over Jamal Crawford because of the fact that Crawford’s horrendous defense excludes him from any “best of” conversation.
1) Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
2) Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
3) Larry Drew, Atlanta Hawks
- At what point do we stop using the “he won it last year” argument against Gregg Popovich. He just led the Spurs to 60+ wins despite 23 missed games from Manu Ginobili, 17 missed games from Tony Parker, and 14 missed games (plus only 30.2 minutes per game) from Tim Duncan. Read that sentence again. If we simply forget every excuse and evaluate the best coaching job in the league, I believe it’s Popovich, and I don’t think it’s particularly close.
- Thibodeau is another guy who the majority of the media/fans forget because of the fact that Chicago lands in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff seeding. However, he has a massive trump card in the fact that he just played the entire season without the services of his best player (by far), and won games at a 55% clip despite deploying a backcourt rotation of Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton’s corpse, and Jimmy Butler. That actually happened. Throw in the fact that Thibodeau is the best defensive coach in the league, and he deserves some love.
- In third place, I’m going with Larry Drew over about 8 other guys because of the unique circumstance he has faced. The Hawks entered the season without Joe Johnson for the first time in several years, received virtually nothing in the way of NBA talent in exchange for him, and Drew went out and won enough games to comfortably make the playoffs in the Eastern conference. In addition, don’t forget that Atlanta lost their 3rd best player (Lou Williams) after 39 games, their only true center (Zaza Pachulia) after 52 games, and entered the season with exactly zero NBA shooting guards. Drew did a masterful job.
1) Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
2) Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
3) Omer Asik, Houston Rocket
- The DPOY is always a very tough award, but this season, I think the choice is clear. Marc Gasol captained the league’s #2 defense (the Grizzlies allowed under 98 points per 100 possessions on the season), led all NBA centers in minutes played (35.1 per game), and never seems to make a mistake. He’s not the “traditional” defensive POY candidate because he’s not the league-leader in blocks (12th) or rebounds (23rd), but his overall excellence stands out to anyone who watches the Grizzlies play defensively. When Gasol is on the court, Memphis allows just 95.4 points per 100 possessions, but when he exits, that number jumps to a much different 102.8 points per 100. He calls the defense throughout the game, never makes a false step, and doesn’t have a single area where he is sub-par. It’s a pleasure to watch him defend, and the list of players that fit that criteria is extremely small.
- Tim Duncan would’ve been my choice here if the minutes were comparable, but his individual efforts have been incredible. Consider this, Duncan is averaging a career-best 2.7 blocks per game this season. This wouldn’t be particularly insane until you realize that a) he’s in his age-36 season, b) he’s in his 16th year, and c) he’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer by any measure. Duncan is the king of “always in the right place”, and he runs the show at an elite level at all times.
- Omer Asik took advantage of a giant jump in minutes this season, and didn’t disappoint in Houston, averaging 11.7 rebounds and single-handedly keeping Houston out of the cellar in terms of defensive efficiency. He is at a unique disadvantage with the rest of his teammates consistently gambling and being out of position, but Asik’s rock-solid production overcomes that, and his play is the biggest reason that Houston is a league-average (16th in the NBA) defensive team.
1) Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
2) Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets
3) Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
- In a normal season, this would be the one award with zero debate, but because of the MVP award (we’ll get there), this landslide isn’t getting the same level of attention. Damian Lillard is an absolute lock to win the ROY this season, and he deserves the title. Lillard led all rookies in points (19.0 per game), assists (6.5), minutes (38.6), and 3-point field goals (183) while captaining a fringe playoff contender from the point-guard spot. There is certainly an argument (or really, non-argument) that Lillard is a below-average defender (he is), but with his offensive contribution over a huge pile of minutes, he’s the no-doubt choice.
- Anthony Davis still has the highest “upside” of any rookie, and when he was on the court and healthy, he was highly productive. The #1 overall pick finished with a sky-high PER of 21.78 and was the quality defender/rebounder that many thought he would be as soon as he stepped into the league.
- In 3rd place, Andre Drummond had a phenomenal rookie year that was unceremoniously cut short by injury, but he exceeded every expectation. Drummond was top-10 in the entire NBA in rebound rate, finished dunks with authority all year, put up an impressive 21.63 PER, and blocked 1.56 shots per game. He has a very, very high ceiling, and his rookie season showed flashes of a Dwight Howard-like profile.
1) Lebron James, Miami Heat
2) Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
3) Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
4) Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
5) Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
- Honestly, this is a no-brainer. Even in a year where Kevin Durant made another leap, Lebron James is the best (and most valuable) basketball player on the planet, and it’s not particularly close. Lebron put up a historic PER this season (31.68) to go along with his normal ridiculous averages of 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.3 assists. In addition to those numbers, James made a significant leap in field goal percentage, shooting an outlandish 56.5% for the season (5th in the NBA, only perimeter player in the top 16) and finishing in the top-5 in true shooting percentage. On the defensive end, Lebron is an elite, elite, elite player in every facet, possessing the ability to guard all five positions effectively, and rebounding at an excellent rate. I could go on for days, but the fact that remains that while Durant is a near-equal offensively, Lebron James dominates him on the defensive end, and that makes for an easy choice in the MVP voting.
- With all of the glowing reports about LBJ, Kevin Durant is the consensus #2 and the gap between him and the #3 player (Chris Paul) is also significant. Durant is #1-A to Lebron on the offensive end of the court, posting an insane 50/40/90 season in the shooting percentages (field goal/3-point/free throw), while putting up a career-high in assists (4.6) per game and finishing 2nd in the league in scoring. Durant has also made significant strides defensively, using his length to disrupt passing lanes and change shots, and increasing his strength to avoid being bulldozed by bigger, thicker opponents. He is a joy to watch, and in any other year, he would’ve been a fantastic MVP choice.
- After the “big two”, the rest of the candidates look a lot alike. Chris Paul gets the nod for me because of his pure “value” to his team, captaining a home-court team in the West without the benefit of a real “go-to” guy (apologies to Blake Griffin), and finishing 3rd in the league in PER. Paul is one of the most efficient offensive players in the league, he’s a solid defender (who also led the league in steals), and in crunch time, he consistently puts up the best numbers of any superstar in the league.
- I’m probably in the minority in recognizing Tim Duncan as the #4 MVP candidate, but I feel strongly that his performance is deserving. Duncan is sixth in the league in PER (24.49), but his defensive contributions push that number to the stratosphere, and the only argument against his inclusion here is his low minute total. He is the captain of the San Antonio defense and their only offensive threat inside, and the difference between Duncan and Carmelo Anthony is the fact that Duncan’s defensive aptitude takes away any weaknesses from his game. The same cannot be said about Anthony.
Guard – Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Guard – Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Forward – Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets
Forward - Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Center – Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
- Honestly, the only “decision” on this list is the inclusion of Valanciunas. The other four rookies are the consensus top four in just about every way, but I’ve “cheated” a bit and included Drummond and Davis as forwards in order to get Valanciunas some love. Valanciunas finished the season 4th among rookies in “value added” and EWA (estimated wins added), and once he was getting regular playing time, his numbers project extremely well. He gets the honor ahead of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dion Waiters.
Guard – Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Guard – Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Forward – Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Forward – Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Center – Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Guard – James Harden, Houston Rockets
Guard – Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Forward – Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
Forward – Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Center – Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Guard – Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Guard – Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Forward – Lebron James, Miami Heat
Forward – Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Center – Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
- The All-NBA teams always inspire some of the best debate of the year, and this season is no different. In my opinion, there were four (and only four) “locks” to these teams. First, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, and Lebron James are absolute no-brainers as 1st-team inclusions. There is no argument against any of them, and it’s that simple. Then, Carmelo Anthony is head-and-shoulders above all other forward candidates, so his spot on the second team is all but assured. After that, things get interesting.
- On the 1st team, Russell Westbrook gets my nod alongside Chris Paul in the backcourt, and the reason is simple. Russell Westbrook always answers the bell. Westbrook played in all 82 games this season, averaged 23.4 points and 7.5 assists a game, and while his shot selection is sometimes (read: most of the time) a bit wild, there’s no denying his all-court impact on both ends.
- Kobe Bryant is relegated to second-team duty this season, and as difficult as it is to keep the Mamba off of the 1st-team, he’s a glorified offense-only player at this point. His offensive production in 2012-2013 was fantastic (27 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds, 23.09 PER) as he led the Lakers to the playoffs despite many obstacles, but Bryant’s defense is semi-laughable at this point, and it’s tough for me to include a one-way player on the first team. The same issue plagued James Harden, as the former OKC guard made a brilliant transition to Houston, leading the Rockets to the playoffs behind 26 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds a game. His offense is insanely efficient (thanks to 10.1 free throw attempts per game), but the lack of visible effort on defense is pretty troubling, and that fact keeps him with Kobe on the second team.
- For the third team, Parker and Wade simply jumped off the page and begged for inclusion. Tony Parker was having the best season of his entire career before injuries slowed him down in the final third of the season. That didn’t stop him, however, from being 4th in the league among guards in PER, first in field goal percentage (52.4%), and averaging over 20 points and nearly 8 assists per game. Parker has been underrated for years, and without the injury, he would have been nipping at the heels of Bryant/Harden for second team consideration. Wade is a mortal lock for inclusion in the top-3 among shooting guards, and while Harden passed him this season in my mind, he had a tremendous year. Wade actually had a higher PER this season than Harden did, but the real difference was the minutes/shots, and Wade “only” averaged 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. He’s still a tremendous player.
- At forward, the first team (Durant and James) is set in stone, and with Carmelo Anthony a virtual lock for the second unit, there was only one available spot. Blake Griffin was 4th in the league among forwards in PER (22.74) and while his “standard” numbers aren’t that impressive (18 points, 8 rebounds per game), they were a direct result in a cut in minutes (thanks to an improved bench) and not an indication of any slippage from Griffin himself. Throw in the fact that the Clippers are a upper-tier team in the West as well as Griffin’s impressive efficiency (54% FG) and he gets the nod.
- The third team had many candidates, but I settled on Paul George and Chris Bosh. George was the best player on the Pacers this season, averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds a game, and he has turned himself into one of the best wing defenders in basketball. Bosh played out of position for the great majority of the season (at center), but we’ll cheat and get him onto the 3rd team as a power forward. He’s a guy with a 20+ PER in the bank (20.09 this season), and if you can average 17 points and 7 rebounds as the 3rd option? That’s impressive.
- The center position is very fluid in today’s NBA, but if the consensus these days is that Tim Duncan is a center, who am I to argue? Personally, I believe that Duncan is the best power forward to ever play the game, but at this stage, he’s certainly a center, and he was the best player at that position this season. Duncan posted a PER over 24 this season, posted his career-high in blocks (see above), and averaged five-year-highs in both points per 40 minutes (23.6) and rebounds per 40 minutes (13.1). If you factor in his defensive impact on top of these stellar offensive numbers, Duncan is the best center in the league right now. I’m as surprised as you are.
- Following him, Marc Gasol and Al Horford are exceedingly deserving. Gasol was selected above as my defensive player of the year, so that end of the court is (obviously) covered, but he is also a tremendous player on the offensive end. The Grizzlies’ center had the 2nd-best assist rate among centers (21.5) to go along with 14 points and 8 rebounds. While those counting stats don’t jump off of the page, they are more than enough to sustain him as an elite player when coupled with his defense, and he lands on the second team. The 3rd team selection of Al Horford is likely to be controversial, but the numbers support his inclusion. Dwight Howard would be the main contender for the honor, but Horford edges Howard on several factors. First of all, Horford was charged with being the team’s best player (while Howard leaned heavily on Kobe Bryant), and he responded by posting the superior PER (19.81 to 19.57) to Howard. Then, Horford edged Dwight in both VA and EWA, led all centers in scoring after the all-star break, and was one of the most reliable players in the NBA this season. Wait until next year, Dwight.